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Notes from the UUK Members' Annual Conference

David Adams

David Adams

Former Senior Communications Officer
Universities UK

As the famous poem (almost) goes: 'if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on Brexit… then, you'll be a university vice-chancellor, my son (or daughter)'. 

Such has been the mood of remarkable cool and clear-headedness on display at the 2016 UUK Members' Annual Conference, taking place yesterday and today at Nottingham Trent University. 

'Remarkable' because of the pace and significance of events that universities and their leaders have had to process and react to this summer: an unwished-for EU referendum result with massive implications for universities and students; a wide-ranging White Paper quickly followed by the tabling of the first higher education bill in almost 25 years; an unscheduled mid-bill handover to not one but two new secretaries of state and with them two (or at least one and a bit) new government departments to work with. 

UUK members could have been forgiven, then, if they had abandoned all decorum and welcomed universities minister Jo Johnson – seemingly the one constant in this summer's game of three-dimensional chess – to conference this morning like an old friend, the one familiar face in this sea of change. 

Indeed, the minister began by stressing how pleased he was to have stayed in post to be able to take forward the bill. He also stressed the positives in his new dual role across the two departments. He sees it, he said, as an opportunity for government 'to recognise the links between universities, the economy, and the wider education system'. He pointed to the chance to 'take a more unified approach to social mobility and raising attainment' as just one of the opportunities presented by this more joined up approach. 

With the Higher Education and Research Bill undergoing its first scrutiny sessions back in Westminster yesterday and tomorrow it is to the minister's credit that he was able to sandwich the keynote address at conference this morning in between.

Higher Education and Research Bill

Turning to the bill, the minister reminded the audience that regardless of the EU referendum result, which prompted some (but not UUK) to call for the bill to be shelved, there remained the same need for reforms to how higher education is regulated. For all that the UK's universities are 'home to world class teaching and life changing research', there is a need to match this with a 'best in class' regulatory framework, and one that would bring stability at this time where it would be easy to feel anything but. Members (and staff) will have been gratified by the minister acknowledging the influence that the framework proposed by UUK in February 2015 has had on the reforms set out in the bill.

They will also have welcomed the stress the minister placed on the importance of collaboration between the future Office for Students and the new body overseeing research funding, UK Research and Innovation. And when he spoke briefly about the Teaching Excellence Framework, everyone present will have agreed with his sentiment that 'students need to be confident that their investment is worthwhile'.

Brexit and the need for assurances

As a member of a government still very much in the complex process of working out a strategy for its Brexit negotiations, it was clear that the minister was unable to give all the reassurances about Brexit that universities and students want to hear. In her speech preceding his, UUK President Dame Julia Goodfellow called on the government to provide reassurance to EU students applying to study next year that they will pay the same fees and have access to the same financial support arrangements for the duration of their courses. As she pointed out, UCAS applications for 2017–18 entry have already opened: those prospective students – and universities – need to know now where they stand.

While one can speculate about all he may have wanted to say about this, he had to limit his remarks to reassuring UUK members that he and colleagues in government were working as hard and as fast as they can to provide those assurances. He also reiterated the fact that current EU students have had their arrangements and place in the UK assured (as have EU nationals working in universities). Of course, this assurance, and the recently announced underwriting of successful pre-Brexit bids for EU research funding, has been extremely welcome.

Looking for the positives

Accentuating the positives as all universities ministers must, Johnson struck an optimistic tone as he said that as well as working with government to mitigate the risks, universities 'must seize the opportunities Brexit presents'. 

On that at least, everyone present at the UUK Members' Annual Conference can agree. 

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